I'd planned on taking the 4x4 over this time, but as I drove home from St Albans early on Saturday, I realised that the Horse-box I'd taken on my previous visit may have to return with me as the car wasn't going to cut it: it was already full of clothes donations and fresh fruit and veg from Al Barka grocers, 200kg of potatoes from LOTTIE, and tinned food. And there was loads more to come.
Fortunately knowing the good it would do, CHRISTINA didn't hesitate to say yes to a second loan of their vehicle.
I'd managed to partially dislocate my shoulder and fracture my collar bone playing hockey so the loading was aided by various helpers and by Sunday morning the horsebox was ready to roll.
The clothes, tools, building materials, a table saw for the workshop and a trailer took up all the horse area, with the food donations going in the back, Stacked almost to the roof with various other food crammed in, on and around were 600kg of sweet potatoes from Janey who grabbed a ride over with Marcus and I.
By the time we left the 3.5t van must have weighed about 5t and looked like it had been lowered!
Marcus drove, I rested my arm in a sling and Janey shared with us the knowledge gained from of her years of being an activist, we were enjoying each other's company so much that nobody noticed the fuel gauge until we cut out on the M20!
It started again, but after exiting the motorway we cut out again at least 7 more times in the the next 5 miles as we searched for fuel.
Cruising down the hills, using the fuel that sloshed forward in the tank, turning her over and flying up the hills before the engine would cut out and we'd pled with the van to keep rolling to the brow as Marcus weeks out every last drop. Our excitement ended with a 2 mile coast downhill that fortunately had a petrol station at its foot.
We looked at each other incredulously, amazed we had made it so far on no fuel. The "free-wheelers" laughed as we filled up and continued to Folkestone.
We arrived at the warehouse early and started by unloading the food. 25l bottles of vegetable oil from The Golden Elephant in Wheathampstead, potatoes from the Fish and chip shop, chick peas from Dildars, all the food from Al Barka and so much more.
The reaction from the chefs and volunteers was amazing, yells of,
"Sweet potatoes for days bruv."
"Fresh ginger is back in!!"
Or just grabbing some oranges excitedly shaking them at me with glee and grinning,
"Yes! Vitamin C!!!!!!!"
You'd think they were the cold and hungry ones they were so happy. It took a fair amount of time to unload the food before moving on to the clothes, most of which had been sorted beautifully (the donations volunteers really appreciate this).
After clothes were out and two kids bikes were relieved by a lovely lady fixing bikes in the corner, she beamed as she gave them the once over and knew they didn't need any work and had spare inner tubes with them!
Then it was round to the workshop to give them their stuff. After donations and help had slowed over Christmas they were desperate for plastic sheeting, nails, screws, padlocks, tarps, hinges...everything we'd bought really. Self build teams who had be running low on everything were more excited to see a hinge than any adult I've ever met. The trailer would be handy for firewood transportation but Mido the workshop boss-lady had reservations about the table saw. With no blade guard and various skill levels in the workshop, it was put aside for potential use only by people with experience.
After unloading we went to the Brico to buy lengths of timber and clout nails (they didn't arrive from eBay in time) and then headed to the Jungle ready for building.
There was only one topic of conversation in the Jungle, or anywhere else. "THE MOVE".
As you may be aware from the media. The French authorities had decided they wanted to clear a 100m perimeter around the camp near the road, this would allow them to protect their line and keep the refugees away from the lorries.
Unfortunately this meant moving 1500+ people and their tents, shelters and belongings across a crowded wasteland. It was also an issue finding a new location for them, space is in short supply, communities and groups are set up and politically it was a nightmare not just clearing and moving the people but finding a new place for them to go.
The atmosphere was very tense; in a few days the French would come and bulldoze everything, moving that many people over that topography looked impossible and the refugees and their community leaders were angry - unsurprisingly with their human rights being ignored again.
We were caught in the middle, not knowing what to do.
We wanted to get stuck in with the move, but we are there to support the people. Half the jungle wanted to protest, which would lead to violence from the police. If it came to this we'd stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters.
Some residents wanted us to help them move because they didn't want trouble with the authorities, but we couldn't go against their community leaders and neither could they, in their eyes we might as well join the French as disrespect their communities wishes.
That afternoon, while we waited to see what would happen we built a new shelter in the safe zone for some teenage Afghan lads. They spoke excellent English and were into cricket a couple of them having played semi professionally, they had dreams of playing County cricket in England.
There was a young boy nearby, threading a makeshift cricket ball through the tents, shelters and shit back to a bowler who could have been his father.
The boy was maybe 8 years old and the lads helping us build their shelter told us he had lost his mother and father to bombs before making the journey here and was now alone in the jungle.
The community looked after him now, there is a lot of this in the Jungle. Shared responsibility, care for the community, sticking together to help protect the old, the young, the vulnerable.
An old man asked me to help him move his shelter, I told him I couldn't today as the community leaders had decided to protest. He said "What leaders? I want to move, I don't want trouble." And left shaking his head and wringing his hands. There was a atmosphere of tension, fear and uncertainty. The jungle was on a knife edge and you could feel it building as the impossible situation kept rearing its head.
As ever the jungle conditions weren't allowed to dampen spirits or hospitality, sweet, milky tea was frequent and a hot meal provided.
We built the shelter as a team, the afghan lads worked hard. They were going to be sleeping there and were pleased to see us giving it as much care and attention as they were to ensure it would be warm and dry.
We laughed and joked, like guys on building sites do. It doesn't matter what language you speak, if I'm behind a roll of insulation holding it whist its being nailed by one of the Afghans to a wall and yell,
"Ow!" Before laughing at their worried gasp, trust me it's funny in any language.
It was dark by the time we finished and have them their padlock, maybe 8.30pm. The usual hugs and thanks were given, We wished them the best and told them I hoped to see the young lad playing cricket for England one day, they said they would keep playing cricket with him and look after him until he was allowed into the UK...there is always hope, I suppose.
Much more excitement in the jungle to come, I just wanted you all to get an idea of what an amazing effort you did with the donations. Thank you.
Together we are change.
Return To the Jungle
(Part 2) Uncertainty:
Returning to the Jungle a second time was different, not just knowing what to expect, but the reception. A large white van with horses on it, is apparently quite distinctive. I was greeted with smiles, waves and even a few cheers as the residents showed their appreciation for our return to help.
From my work alongside them I have learnt that many would thank Allah for our presence, believing it's not our choice but that we have been chosen and sent to them. I don't think I believe in a God, but I couldn't possibly be arrogant enough to discount this. I feel like I have been awakened and maybe they're are forces I am unaware of that move me to action. But I'm just here to help and my reasons are simple, I'm needed and I can.
Jungle friends come to the window as I thread my way through the people at walking pace and tell me their shelters are warm and I am a good man for coming back. The selfish warm glow of doing good comes back and I feel a little guilty. This time instead of pushing it away I embrace it and decide that it's ok to feel good and that I should use it as fuel for the work ahead. Maybe there are no unselfish acts, but they might as well be positive ones.
I keep inching along the muddy road, taking care not to splash mud from puddles on what might be someone's only clean trousers. Nasser finds me, grinning like a Cheshire Cat and we hug through the window. I agree to help him move his shelter, but we still have to wait for the OK from the community leaders. I tell him there are many meetings today, but to have their documents ready in case the bulldozers come and to pack their belongings ready to go. When it all starts its will be crazy. He tells me they will be ready and Marcus and I keep going along the road to the build site.
We were building 6 emergency shelters for women and children behind the church. With teams of 2/3 there were around 15 of us. While they unloaded the van, I kept an eye on the tools and pointed with my good arm to where the various materials need to go to keep this build organised.
There's a lot to do. If the people don't move in the next few days and the bulldozers clear the tents, after more terror, teargas and violence these people will need somewhere to go.
It's about midday by the time we start to build. The morning organiser meetings, uncertainty as what we were allowed to do, loading/unloading the van and getting to the site, meant we would only get these emergency shelters up before dark and nobody was allowed to move from their current stand until their "elected leaders" say so.
6 shelters only house 24-30 people and there were 1500 to move. There might be a few more teams in the jungle building but we were looking at a maximum of 300 shelters ready for the deadline at this rate. This task was impossible. Low materials had meant there hadn't been enough parts of shelters or transport to build many more. But the materials we brought were being turning into shelter components and more would be here soon, but how soon??
It's impossible to feel low for long with Marcus around, with his can-do attitude, he also smiles all the time; a proper smile that sets you at ease despite his size. Volunteers, refugees, hard men, women and especially children, all warm to Marcus, touching his long dreads and calling him Rastaman. Soon we're levelling and screwing together pallets as floors and joining the frames.
Unlike previous builds there wasn't any residents helping hammer the plastic on with clout nails, bringing tea or taking pride in their work, or thanking us. It was full steam ahead and with a combination of painkillers I felt little pain as we worked efficiently, a week in the jungle under our belts, a good team and the sense of being only at the beginning of a mammoth task driving us all forward.
It was dark by the time we all finished. Our shelter went up reasonably quick with Marcus taking the high bits and me working at my optimal level using my left arm for holding screws and nails and my right for everything else. Once a shelter was finished the volunteers would help get another finished off, so we could all tidy up and go home in the various shared transport.
When Marcus and I were done there was the usual quick job here and there. Collecting tools you leant and said you would return for and the promises of a 1 minute, quick fix, that due to Jungle time turns into a 5 minute trudge through the mud, a 10 minute wrestle with conditions and equipment and a slog back picking your way through guy lines, shelters and makeshift fences that turn into dead ends.
But we do it, never complaining when someone you're waiting for apologises and says "Jungle time". We understand it's hard to say no when it's a simple job. We all do it to ensure other humans sleep safe or dry tonight. A fixed lock, a tarp to waterproof the roof. There are a lot of 1 minutes in the jungle and the result is a black hole for time that leaves bewildered as to how it got so late again.
Marcus and I returned to our hotel for a shower and headed to the Family Pub for a late dinner and chat to the other volunteers and the staff while we await developments.
Important decisions made by the Jungle elders are always made at night.
Next morning we get to the workshop and tool up for the day. Hammers, crow bars...but not for violence.
There's a buzz around as the word is out. The community leaders have resolved to find the most peaceful solutions. They will peacefully protest the infraction on their human rights, but for the safety of their communities they will move. They are not happy about it and I don't blame them.
They are human beings forced by other people's bullshit wars from good jobs, now living in a muddy shithole, built on a refuse dump full of rats, disease and asbestos.
To add to that they are now being herded like livestock, forced into living quarters that would make a battery hen feel claustrophobic. All to ensure that they cannot escape the hell they are trapped in, to stop their political protests of slowing traffic to force industry and media to ignore them no longer, to make them easier targets for rubber bullets and teargas.
We hear the perimeter has grown but the deadline may be extended if we do well today. So everybody heads to the Jungle ready to dismantle and rebuild shelters for the total insanity that will be Jungle Moving.
Return To the Jungle
(Part 3) Moving:
We spend the next few days in a similar pattern. Early mornings unscrewing shelters from their pallet bases, allowing the residents to carry them to a new location, while we unscrewed more shelters. We would then build self builds when they arrived on site and then later in the day we would reassemble shelters that had been moved inside the perimeter.
There were a lovely bunch of Iraqi lads who had taken the initiative and found a site to move to, physically torn their shelters apart and moved them to the other side of the jungle with all their belongings on the first morning they were told ok.
They needed help screwing it all together and needed some new plastic for the roof etc. So we got stuck in. Before we knew it we were helping lead about 10 groups of refugees rebuild their shelters, the same guys translating for the other ones, lending out tools to anyone who needed one, but always with a look in the eye and a circular motion of the finger indicating "This comes back to me". They almost always did. I lent out as many tools as I had, handfuls of nails, staple guns, screws and drills until all the shelters around us were waterproof and warm and all our batteries were dead. Leaving hammers and nails for them to finish off. Hammers and nails are always handy and get passed around, so one hammer in the jungle is worth 10 in my hand.
There was a moment when I had take a saw back from an Afghan lad who wanted to cut a long branch that his Sudanese neighbour was using as a border fence.
Explaining to him like a jungle bound Robert Frost in Mending Wall, that, "good fences make good neighbours" and more importantly, fence or not, it's not your wood.
The Sudanese guy was very friendly and appreciated it. Boundaries need to be set and relationships here are built on mutual respect.
We would help where we could when we could, but generally tried to make best use of our skills, there were bodies for teamwork. The rally call had been sent, heard and answered from the UK and elsewhere. The Jungle was alive, it was as though all the volunteers from the past had arrived en mass to perform an anarchist miracle working with the refugees to save as many shelters as we could. The area to be cleared was emptying slowly.
One morning after taking apart a dozen shelters that were ready to go. Marcus and I were asked to lend a hand lifting an entire shelter onto a flat bed, as the 20 or so volunteers and residents heaved it upwards a rat the size of a small dog ran straight across my feet, probably disappointed his warm home and food supply was moving. The lady next to me screamed (I swear it was her) as more rats fled the next and we all staggered to the trailer with the floating house.
I get a call from Tom, a lovely guy on the build team; along with Pete, Jack and many others he keeps everything moving and deals with the build crews, the workshop, driving the vans, the residents who all want shelters and the bureaucrats. Today we are building for the Kurds.
As we unload, a 14 year old boy with poor English tells me he is in a tent on the mud, with other boys. Unable to help with heavy lifting I go and have a look. It's him another 3 boys. Aged 14,14,15 and 17. In a tent in the cold. I tell him I'll sort it and he looks sceptical. I take him back to Tom, who agrees to get me a shelter in the next run we will have to help them build it of course. I tell the boy I will be back at around 4pm to build him a shelter, lost in translation a little, he says "Tomorrow??"
"Today...later, today." I reply. I think he understands.
Another lad with excellent English and bright blue eyes comes over, clearly Persian. He is in the same position and asks for a shelter, there are components left for one in the van, ready for a build team, but all the build teams are on shelters so he will have to wait. I recognise him from my last trip when he spoke to me and his name went on the list.
"Can you build it, if we give it to you?" I ask. He looks unsure. "If I give you saw, hammer and nails, can you build it?" I ask again. "Yes, he says, I have no tools, but we can build." We unload the van and his friends ferry the materials to their new site.
As I grab my tools from the horsebox ready head off to the Kurds to build. Blue eyes grabs me and hugs me, grinning as he runs off to do the first real "self-build" I'd seen.
The young lads look at me again and say,
"Today." I reassure them.
Return To the Jungle
(Part 4) Kurdish resistance:
We had 3 shelters to build in the Kurdish area, which is just inside the perimeter over-looked by the road now in the distance across empty scrub. There's a mixture of clad pre-fabs, caravans for families and the usual tents and self-builds but the ground is reasonable and it should be a good build. Whenever it's time to unload my arm starts to ache and the sling I occasionally rest it in sometimes comes out. I prep the mud foundations, picking up rocks, old socks and nappies with my gloved right hand and kicking the ground level as best i can. Materials are ferried to the site from the van and I point to where I want the 3 sets of components to go for an efficient build, everyone's door and 11 lengths of timber etc might as well be as close to them as possible while being out of everyone's way.
We start to build around midday and the bases start to go down, we have about 8 people working. A lovely girl called Emma takes the one next door with a couple of others and I crack on with Marcus. The children from the caravan are bored and a 4 year old boy insists on helping me do the first 20 screws. Using an electric screwdriver is probably the most fun he's had for a while, so I take my time and we build a floor together and jump on it to make sure it's solid. He goes and joins his friends, who come back as we start to build the framework of the walls and roof. They get bored again and when we don't let them help as its not safe for so many and time is a factor they sulk and throw dirt on the floor. The Rastaman roars with a smile and chases them away as they scatter laughing. One of the mothers scolds them and smiles at us, we smile back and that is enough.
We get the framework nearly done when Marcus is asked to fix a caravan window, he looks at me and says,
"1 minute?" The window is within eyeshot and all the high work is done so I tell him to crack on. Other shelters were further ahead, with some of the plastic walls on already. We are doing well.
Timber is done and I've tided up and I'm just having a smoke break with Emma. I'm ready to start the plastic and am just waiting on Marcus to finish up when I spot 25 Kurdish men heading in our direction. I look at Marcus up a ladder and let him know we might have trouble.
But Marcus wasn't close enough to intercept them with "the smile" and they were heading straight for me.
I moved towards them away from Emma and attempted a smile. I'm not sure if my standing around pointing during the unloading process had labelled me as the boss, but right now they were surrounding me and they were not happy. Two of them had good English, one spoke fluently.
"We want you to stop building and leave." He said. "Right now, I want you to stop building, take your tools and leave."
I introduced myself and he gave me his name. We'll call him Jon.
"Can we please finish first, so we can build more?" I asked.
"No, stop now and leave." He replied decisively. "You do not build enough for us, you build for everyone else who makes trouble and we are very angry. Stop work now."
This wasn't my call, I had no authority to stop a build in a humanitarian crisis, we could be putting a roof over people's heads tonight. But they were telling us to stop. So I made a decision and shouted for everyone to stop building and come out of the shelters. Unlike in my own home, strangely everyone listened and came out of the shelters, maybe the sling had fooled them to.
The Kurds issue ,which was delivered aggressively, was that we were only building 3 shelters for them. In their view the Afghans make more trouble and get more Shelters.
The leader looked me dead in the eye and said,
"We Kurds are a peaceful people but we can make trouble if our people need it." I believed him.
I tried to explain that the people here didn't choose where to build and were building as many as they could for as many people as possible. He said he understood and to get the Chief down here. I phoned Tom, who spoke to Nico, who would be 15 mins as she was on the other side of the Jungle.
I agreed we would tidy our tools and prepare to leave while Nico was called, but we would do no more work.
I sorted and stacked my tool boxes as everyone tidied up. I placed the insulation rolls inside the shelter frame, put the plastic cladding and roof over that in case it rained and left a hammer, Stanley knife and nails in the centre of the floor. It was everything someone needed to finish the build.
A young volunteer asked about keeping a hammer handy, just in case the Kurds had some weapons of sorts. I couldn't blame him,;it had crossed my mind for a moment. I told him I didn't want to see a single tool in hand and to do whatever the Kurds wanted. We were leaving, so there shouldn't be a problem.
I sat on my toolboxes and had another smoke with Emma, she was shaken by the whole experience and I gave her a hug. Nico still hasn't arrived, but as we smoked the Kurds were returning with greater numbers.
It didn't look great and I asked Emma if she wanted to go, she did and I told her to leave. I went to talk to Jon, Emma didn't leave but stayed along with the other volunteer, all unsure of what was going to happen next. Marcus stood next to me and we went to meet Jon.
Jon said they wanted to build with us. After they had scared the shit out of the volunteers, I wasn't keen on agreeing to that and I pointed at the shelter and said,
"No, you have everything you need to finish and plenty of people with plenty of hammers. You have scared people who are here to help you and there are others who need our help."
Jon looked at me and with a hint of apology in his voice said,
"No, please Ben, we will build together." I understood he was in a difficult position trying to manage and take care of his people with a hundred opinions and this was a reasonable compromise.
I checked for a few nods from the volunteers and Emma and announced loudly.
"Together we will build." The other two shelters were appointed Kurdish helpers and we got back to work. With the extra hands we got going and even managed to free up people for another build. In my shelter there were two builders with me and we smashed it. We quickly made friends and while alone apologised for the trouble, I sympathised and together we built the most beautifully insulated shelter I'd made.
Nico had since told me to give the padlocks to Jon once the shelters were done. It was dark by the time we had all finished, I'd locked the shelters and explained to the people that I couldn't give them the keys to the shelters they have just helped build. Then found Jon and then ensured that the keys were going to the people who built them.
Marcus came and gave me one of his bear hugs and told me I'd done great. We hadn't eaten and it was about 7pm. I went to find the young 14yr old from that morning and told him I would be back in one hour and I would build him a shelter tonight. He didn't look so sure.
We went to the Afghan flag for some Chicken, rice and beans. With sweet tea and friendly owners it's always lively and warm. We got chatting to a friendly Palestinian character with excellent English who played a game with raisins, which he strangely always won. When we ordered food he jumped up and said, "I am cooking for these gentlemen!" And busters I to the kitchen. The staff clearly familiar with our new friend happily obliged and I guessed it wasn't his first time in their kitchen.
We started chatting to a nice guy from North Africa who was trying to set up a barbers in the jungle and all laughed at our friend Kit's stories. He had been strimming the bushes with a heavy duty bit of machinery and had hit loads of nappies, poo and worst a carton of sour milk. He did have a face mask but had accidentally put it down in poo at some point, and then taken 20 minutes to work out why everywhere smelled of poo!! Sometimes my job seems easy.
We ate our meal, famished and in need of energy.
A group of Afghan lads in their teens came in while Marcus and I waited for Tom to return from a jungle meeting. We chatted to them. They had learnt English from the movies and were happy to practice. They joked about how many people we could get in the horse-van and I said I'd go by boat if I were them. Do you have a boat they asked. Not yet I winked. They were all skilled or educated all wanting to come to work. Not one wanted handouts, just a chance, an opportunity to be human, to live, to work, to be safe. We had a smoke together and more tea. We were warm and comfortable. The people were friendly, I was tired and I wanted to stay. We said goodbye, paid and thanked our hosts and left.
It was cold outside and the idea of building another shelter wasn't inviting, but I had promised, and Tom and Marcus weren't going to let me do it on my own.
We arrived at the boys to find them huddled in their tent. They couldn't believe it when I poked my head in and said, "We build shelter now."
"Now????" They were still unsure.
"Now, tonight! Now, now." I answered.
Marcus roused them and soon we were ferrying materials, my shoulder didn't hurt, it was too late in the day for pointing. As we moved the materials in, there was a group of about 6 men, I had seen them throughout the day dismantle and move a huge board clad, solid roof shelter on their own. They were more tired than us, but still going.
As I passed I said hello and asked if they needed anything? Someone with good English asked for a drill to put in the screws that hold it together. I said we were using ours but could give them a hand in a bit. I then decided we had enough hands and drills so I went and worked with them, while Tom, Marcus and the boys carried on building the shelter i'd promised them.
These guys were from Iraq and were great, hoisting me up into the roof to screw the metal cladding on, putting the screws in the holes ready for me to screw in. We worked fast and with few words, after the roof and walls and being on various men's shoulders, I put security screws in the hinges and latches and even made them a handle for the door, funnily enough the only carving I did on site. There were exhausted hugs and words of thanks and praise before I returned to help the others finish the shelter.
We finished at around 11.30pm, glad to see the boys safe and warm, in an osb sheet clad shelter, with a lock and insulation. Barely older than my 10 year old daughter and living in fear and squalor, they were some of the happiest faces I saw in the jungle when they locked their shelter and said good night.
It had been a good days work and we were completely exhausted.....so obviously we went to the Family Pub for a well earned drink.